Empathy
By: James Rumpel

Boom. Boom. Boom. The beat of the bass coming from Archie's stereo wasn't that loud; it was probably not even strong enough to bother Mr. and Mrs. Walker downstairs. To Mike, however, it felt as if each beat was driving a spike into his head. It wasn't fair that he should be this hungover. He hadn't drunk that much. Meanwhile, Archie, who had consumed way more than his fair share of alcohol last night, was feeling much more chipper than he had any right to.

"Oh, calm down," said Archie. He cracked an egg and added it to his breakfast skillet, a conglomeration of bacon, cheese, and sausage.

It took all of Mike's intestinal strength not to run to the bathroom and empty his stomach. "I'm just going to go back to my room and lie down for a while. I don't feel very well."

"You just woke up. Are you that much of a lightweight?" Archie let out a brief chuckle. "I'm just funning with ya, bro. Go lie down till you feel better. Oh, by the way. While you were sleeping, your doctor called. He has the results of your tests. He wouldn't tell me, but you can call him back at the number I wrote on your Biology notebook."

Mike scooped his books up from the coffee table and headed to the relative peace of his bedroom. "Thanks, Arch. Could you please turn the music down a little while I'm on the phone?"

"Sure. Maybe next Friday night, you should stick to warm milk."

***

Mike sat on his bed. The room seemed to spin, ever so slightly. He held the phone to his ear with his left hand while he rubbed his bicep with the other hand. Maybe he could massage the dull ache away.

"Well, Mike," said Dr. Bergman, "all the scans of your heart came back negative. There is no blockage at all. As far as I can tell there is nothing wrong with it."

"But what about the pain in my chest and the soreness in my left arm?"

"Trust me, Mike," replied the doctor. "We don't take chest pains lightly. If there was something wrong with your heart, we would have found it. I'm going to prescribe a two-week regimen of an antacid. It's possible you're dealing with heartburn."

"It feels like a lot more than that, Doctor," argued Mike. "I know it wasn't hurting when I was at the clinic, but it is now." He was well aware of the fact that he was coming across as some sort of hypochondriac, but he didn't care. He had been struggling with tightness in his chest ever since moving off-campus during Christmas break. "This has been going on for nearly three months now."

"Lots of people mistake heartburn for something more serious. Don't feel bad about that." Mike imagined the doctor twirling his finger around his ear on the other side of the line. Mike couldn't blame him if he was. He felt like he was losing his mind.

"What about the kidney stones?" asked Mike. "That pain couldn't be because of heartburn, could it?" For the last three weeks, Mike had been dealing with random jolts of pain in his lower right abdomen. Sometimes he felt only a slight twinge. Other times it felt as if someone were sticking a flaming hot poker into his kidney.

"I'm sorry, Mike, but the x-rays don't show any stones at all. I don't know where that pain is coming from. I need you to come in for some more blood work. I'd like to check your enzyme levels again."

"Sure, why not. I'll make an appointment." Mike's doctor bill was already way past the deductible on his parents' insurance. Why not run the bill up even further?

After completing the call and scheduling his next appointment, Mike fell back onto his bed and stared at the spackled ceiling. He took a deep breath. It felt as if a large dog were sitting on his chest. Between his kidneys, heart, and any number of other unaccountable aches and pains, he felt as if he were seventy years old and not twenty.

He slowly rolled onto his side and looked at his alarm clock. It was nearly ten o'clock. He had to get up. There was someplace he needed to be, though he couldn't quite recall where. It was only after his eyes fell on the oddly shaped antique Egyptian sculpture Sandy had given him that he remembered. A lot of things had been slipping his mind lately.

He was supposed to meet Sandy in the library to study for a Sociology test. Sociology was Mike's major; he hoped to be social worker after college. Sandy didn't do well with the social sciences and often relied on him for help. They met at the library because he found it much easier to concentrate when he studied on campus. He pulled out his phone to call and tell her he was running a little late.

He hesitated. His friendship with Sandy had been strained since they returned to school after winter break. They had always been friends, but Mike had hoped they could take the relationship to a different level.

He had even expressed his thoughts on the subject before Sandy left for her two-week trip to Cairo with the archeology club. When she had returned, she had explained that she just didn't have those type of feelings for him. She had given him a small jade statuette she had gotten from a street vendor. It was a sculpture of a skinny little man holding a papyrus scroll. Sandy had said it represented some Egyptian god of mercy or healing. She called it a "you are a great friend who I don't want to ever lose as a friend" gift. Mike thought it was more of an "I hooked up with a really hot guy from my archeology club on the trip to Egypt" gift.

Mike took a deep breath, wincing at the discomfort in his chest. Sandy was a good person. He wasn't going to be petty and hold her decision against her. He wasn't that kind of a guy.

***

Mrs. Walker intercepted him as he was heading to his car. She stopped weeding the flower garden and walked over to talk. For a woman of over seventy-five and little on the plump side, she still had a spring to her step.

"Good morning, Mike," she said. As usual, she had a huge grin on her face. Mike couldn't recall a time when the old lady hadn't been in a good mood.

"Hi, Esther," he replied.

"I was thinking, Mike. If those kidney stones bother you again, you should try laying on your side with your legs elevated. That helps them pass. I used to get them quite often, but luckily I haven't had to deal with any for the last few months."

"Ah, okay. I'll try that. Thanks."

Esther's smile grew even bigger. "Just want to help. Have a great day."

***

A month later, Mike lay in his bed staring at the jade sculpture beside his alarm clock, tears rolling down his cheeks. He had no idea why he was crying. There was no reason for him to be sad. He and Archie had gone to Florida with a busload of spring breakers and gotten back that evening.

It had been a glorious time: seven days of constant laughter, drinking, and partying. Mike felt healthier than he had in months. His heart and kidneys hadn't bother him at all. He enjoyed more than his share of alcohol without the painful side-effect of a debilitating hangover the next morning. Archie, on the other hand, was no longer immune to the effects of an evening of consumption. Mike had sort of enjoyed watching him pay the price for each night's revelry.

But now, when he should have been fast asleep, he found himself unable to find rest. He was consumed by a feeling of heavy, unexplainable sorrow. He felt empty, alone.

***

Two days later, the malaise finally disappeared, as suddenly and mysteriously as it had arrived. Mike came home from volunteering at the youth center to find an unfamiliar older gentleman carrying boxes from the first level of the house to a pick-up truck.

"Hello," the man greeted him. "You must be one of the fellows who live upstairs."

"Yes, I'm Mike. Is anything wrong?"

"Oh. I suppose we forget to let you know. I'm Esther's brother, Paul."

Mike could see the resemblance. Paul had the same easy-going smile as Esther. He was a bit rounder in the face; a fact emphasized by his nearly totally bald head.

Paul continued his explanation though he was no longer smiling. "You see, last week, her husband, Roger, had a heart attack and passed away."

Mike couldn't help but gasp. "He seemed so healthy."

"He had a bad heart, but you are right, for the last few months he rarely showed symptoms. That is until last Wednesday. Ester has decided to move out of the house. She's going to stay at a facility downtown for a while."

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

Paul paused for a second before nodding. "If you would be kind enough to help me carry some of this stuff to the truck. I suffer from COPD and I really shouldn't be exerting myself too much."

"I'd be happy to help," said Mike.

"Thank you very much, young man," replied Paul. "By the way, your apartment is still there for you. My wife and I are going to live downstairs. We recently decided it was way past time to get off the farm. We are going to stay here until we can find a more permanent place. We're going to bring our stuff this weekend."

***

Saturday morning, Mike woke up at the usual time. To his great distress, he experienced a painful burning sensation while relieving himself. He panicked momentarily. Was it possible to contract an STD without the S? He decided to see if symptoms continued. If they did, he would have to make another appointment to see Dr. Bergman.

He was sitting quietly in the living room, watching Archie play [Super-Smash Brothers] when he heard the sound of a truck stopping in front of the house. He glanced out the window.

"Hey, Archie," he said, "Esther's brother and his wife are here to move stuff in. I'm going to go down and help them. Do you want to join me?"

Archie didn't take his eyes off the television screen. "I don't know. Maybe after this game." He cringed as his game character went flying off the side of the screen.

Mike knew that he would not be getting any help from Archie. He shrugged and headed down the outside stairs.

"Can I help?" he called as he approached Paul and an older woman, he assumed to be Paul's wife.

"That would be great," replied Paul. "This is my wife, Marge."

***

By the third load of boxes, Mike was having an incredibly hard time catching his breath. It was a warm day for early May, but not so warm as to sap one's energy.

"Maybe you should sit down awhile, young fellow," offered Paul. "Usually, I'm the one who wears out quickly. I actually feel pretty good today."

"I don't get it," wheezed Mike. "I don't ever have a problem catching my breath."

"Maybe you are coming down with something," suggested Marge. "I wasn't feeling too good yesterday. But I feel much better today. I had a bladder infection, but it's gone."

Paul laughed as he grabbed a large box of dishes off the back of the truck. "TMI, Marge. I'm sure Mike doesn't want to hear about your bladder."

***

That evening, Mike lay in his bed, trying to get air to fill his lungs. He had just gone through another painful urination and the effort had caused him shortness of breath.

A knocking on the door roused Mike from fitful rest. Every muscle in his body seemed to ache.

"Mike," called Archie from outside his door. "Can I come in? We need to talk."

"Sure," answered Mike. "Whatever."

Once inside, Archie got right to the point. "Mike, you have to do something about your health. You're missing way too many classes and all you ever do is complain. You're scaring me, Bro."

Mike wanted to smile but managed only a grimace. "I've been to the doctor dozens of times. He says there's nothing wrong with me. To be honest, I usually feel better when I am at the clinic. I only really feel lousy when I am in this house."

"Well, maybe there's something about this house causing your problems. Maybe you need to move out."

"I don't want to do that," answered Mike. "This is a great place. Paul and Marge have been great landlords just like Esther and Roger were."

"Well, let's at least get you out of here for a little while and see if you start to feel better. Come on, I'm taking you to the student center. Sandy is going to meet us there."

***

Sandy stared at Archie. "So, you're telling me that you never feel sick when you're in the house?"

Archie shook his head. "No, I feel just fine no matter where I am."

"But I usually feel awful," added Mike. "It used to be chest pains and kidney stones. Now it's headaches and difficulty breathing. And every time I go to the bathroom …" He looked at Sandy and stopped midsentence.

"Maybe you're allergic to something, though it's weird that the symptoms changed." Sandy seemed to be generally concerned. She was a good friend even if she would never be anything more.

"Yeah, things switched about the time Roger passed away and Esther moved out."

"I'll repeat what I said earlier," said Archie. "I think you are going to have to move out."

"I don't think it's the house," insisted Mike. "It has to be something else. Maybe I'm just crazy."

"You're not crazy," insisted Sandy. "You are the most kind-hearted, empathetic person I know. That's why I got you the stature of Imhotep. He is the god of healing and empathy."

"Well, I've definitely needed healing since you gave it to me," scoffed Mike.

All three friends stared at each other in silence, their eyes widening.

"Could it be the statue?" asked Archie.

"Everything started happening after winter break. That's when you gave it to me."

"It can't be," said Sandy. "I just bought from a street vendor …"

"Who said it was magical," finished Mike.

"But why is Mike the only one affected? I live in the same house." asked Archie.

Sandy paused, "I don't know. Maybe it only has an effect on people who care deeply about other's well-being."

"Hey, I resent that," said Archie. After a moment he added, "But it is sort of true. That makes sense. Otherwise the guy you bought it from would have been affected and you would have probably had symptoms before you gave it to Mike."

Mike jumped up from his chair. "We're going to the library. We have some research to do."

***

Mike stood over his dresser, staring at the jade statue.

If what they found in the library was true, the statue was a powerful talisman. It would give a truly empathetic owner the ability to take away other's pain and inflict it upon themself. Mike had been unknowingly doing that for months.

As unbelievable as it sounded, the statue explained everything. When Mike was within a certain distance of the statue it transferred the suffering of others onto him.

All of his ailments had come from the people around him: Roger's heart issues, Esther's kidney stones, Paul's COPD, even Archie's hangovers.

Roger had died because Mike was not there during spring break to take away the suffering. He had returned in time to obtain Esther's depression and sadness.

The solution was simple; get rid of the statue. He would not force anyone else to endure what he had gone through. It would be easy to toss the talisman in a nearby river. Even if he maintained ownership, Mike would always be outside of its sphere of influence. His problems would be over.

It would still be light for another hour. He grabbed the statue and started toward the door. An echo of laughter coming through the open window made him pause. He looked out on the front lawn and saw Paul and Marge sitting in the yard. They had a pair of those old fashion lawn chairs, the kind with seats made of strips of plastic. The old couple was sitting there, talking. Paul got up and offered his hands to his wife. She grabbed them as she rose and the two proceeded to start dancing. They held each other close, whispering in each other's ears.

Mike set the statue back on his nightstand and sat back down on his bed. He could wait until tomorrow to get rid of it.

The End

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